BBC Proms reviews

Prom 47: London Symphony Orchestra – Valery Gergiev @ Royal Albert Hall, London

18 August 2006

Yuri Bashmet

Yuri Bashmet

The Royal Albert Hall was tightly packed tonight. Coupled with the anticipation of hearing star performers Valery Gergiev and Yuri Bashmet playing with the excellent London Symphony Orchestra, the atmosphere was set before a single note was played. Gergiev, a great master of atmosphere, did not disappoint: not only did he control what was happening on the stage but he had the audience with him, too. Gergiev held a very long pause after both main works Schnittke’s Viola Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and the audience obliged: nobody clapped, nobody moved for what felt like possibly a whole minute.

The first item in the concert excerpts from The Golden Age by Shostakovich was fun but not much more. Given by lesser performers than Gergiev and the LSO, the entertainment could have easily changed into annoyance. On this occasion, however, Shostakovich’s ballet score sparkled, excited and amused. The programme notes obliged with the story line of the ballet but the excerpts we heard could be treated on purely musical terms. Indeed, Gergiev utilised his customary drive in the opening movement he was so fast that I was glad there were no dancers around his sensitivity (does anybody else treat a foxtrot with such sensitivity?) and his players’ skills. For me one minus was the lack of clear rhythmic definition in the percussion which did not seem to be entirely together with Gergiev.

Yuri Bashmet was the dedicatee of Schnittke’s Viola Concerto; he premiered the work 20 years ago. I noted with interest that dynamics marked in the (1995 Sikorski) score were often in sharp contrast with what Bashmet delivered. Nevertheless, he played beautifully with a truly noble viola tone. Bashmet’s control over his instrument (and specifically his bow control) is exemplary. His sense as well as delivery of rhythm should be inspiring for all around him. It was a privilege to hear him.

Schnittke’s Viola Concerto is a dark work. The programme notes omitted to tell us that there are no parts for violins in this piece. The solo viola plays almost non-stop during the 34 minute-long composition. He is obliged to deliver extensive sections of virtuoso passages, some of which are drowned out by beautiful but somewhat loud orchestra passages. (I hasten to clarify that this is the composer’s fault.) There are some beautiful dialogues between viola and flute as well as viola and trombone: all realised expertly at this concert.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 the ‘Pathetique’ is supposed to be associated with death. Indeed, a short quotation from the Russian Orthodox funeral service appears in the first movement. But the symphony is also full of beautiful melodies. There is a charming waltz (second movement) and we also have march-like sections. I would prefer to associate this symphony with life which, obviously, inevitably concludes with death.

Judging by this performance, the LSO has not yet learnt to read Gergiev’s somewhat unusual conducting. Gergiev does not so much conduct as direct. The ensemble was not tight at the beginning, which is unusual for the LSO. Gergiev appeared to have to work extremely hard to get his players into various shades of moods. He did win but it took time. He was helped by excellent timpani player Nigel Thomas (always spot on), by some very atmospheric clarinet playing (Andrew Marriner) and many other players. The final bassoon solo (Rachel Gough) will remain with me for a while.

The Royal Albert Hall played its own part in the ‘Pathetique’ symphony. More than once, brass sections echoed longer than the rest of the orchestra: sounds were thus multiplied by courtesy of the Hall. Fortunately they were fine sounds.

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